In the beginning …
Gardening has become a really significant part of my life. It started many years ago with some tomatoes in a grow-bag and a few pots of bedding plants dotted around and has developed to the point that I now have a pretty productive allotment where I grow quite a range of edibles, as well as a small but cherished domestic garden. The common theme throughout is that, having lived my adult life in a city, the gardening has always been confined to small, enclosed spaces. Indeed this is probably the experience of the vast majority of human beings given that we mainly live in densely populated towns and cities; not the rolling acreages depicted in many a gardening magazine. So for a fair while now I have been fostering an interest in the innovative approaches being taken to ‘greening’ urban spaces, and have decided to start this blog as a vehicle for capturing my own learning, observations and attempts at applying these things in real life.
Influences and interests
A few years ago I completed the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture followed by a BTEC Diploma in Garden Design, which gave a bit of formal structure to my general interest in plants and gardening. There was then a bit of a hiatus, partially filled by a failed attempt at some distance learning and the acquisition of the allotment, before starting the RHS Level 3 Certificate in the Principles of Garden Planning, Construction and Planning in Autumn 2016 (just found out I passed but missed out on an overall commendation by 2.5 marks!). Although the RHS can be quite traditional in its approach at times (including a peculiar obsession with Victorian-style bedding displays), it is noticeable that in recent years it has focussed increasing attention on more contemporary issues such as urban gardening through for example its Greening Grey Britain campaign, and the inclusion of the popular back-to-back gardens in the Tatton Park Flower Show each July. The RHS Level 3 Certificate includes a module on Specialist and Urban Planting which covers topics such as green roofs and living walls, roof gardens, container gardens and rainwater gardens, which are all aspects I’d like to pursue further.
Alongside this I have long been concerned by environmental considerations. Although gardening is largely focussed on the growth and development of plants this does not necessarily mean it is a particularly sustainable practice. The use of herbicides and pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, peat-based compost, and demand for irrigation during dry periods, not to mention use of monocultural lawns and selection of elaborate cultivated flowers which look pretty but provide little sustenance to insects, all serve to undermine the contribution that gardening can make to environmental sustainability. So along with a desire to explore opportunities for gardening in small urban spaces, there is also a wish to do so in a manner which facilitates water conservation, provides a habitat for wildlife, and off-sets the impact of human-made pollution.
Finally there is the contribution that gardening can make to health and wellbeing. I know from my own personal experience that an hour or two at the allotment can be a hugely effective way of managing stress and anxiety, not to mention providing a pretty good physical work-out which would rival session in the gym. There is an increasing body of research evidencing the positive impact of gardening, and more broadly access to green space, on health and well-being. It is therefore especially important that people living in towns and cities have the opportunity to either garden themselves, or at least see the product of other people’s efforts in their surrounding area.
Public vs private
As a consequence of both my studying and more informal browsing of magazines it has been interesting to develop a wider awareness of the some of the high profile public projects that have been progressed in cities in recent years and the people who have contributed to them.
The naturalistic planting style pioneered by Piet Oudolf and the New Perennial movement is one such example which has become hugely influential on what a public park can be. Lower maintenance and less formal than a traditional park, with a ‘wilder’ feel to the use of plants against a city backdrop such as the High Line in New York or Potters Fields in London, to some extent they bring a slice of the countryside to the city.
Similarly, there is the work of Professor James Hitchmough and Professor Nigel Dunnett, both based at Sheffield University, which focusses on the development of urban landscapes. Their projects include the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London (together) as well as, respectively, wildflower planting at Oxford Botanic Garden and the redevelopment of the roof gardens at the Barbican in London (likely to be the focus of the next blog post).
While these projects are truly inspiring in terms of demonstrating how disused or neglected city spaces can be transformed into beautiful urban landscapes, it is how these ideas can be applied to smaller scale, domestic settings which particularly interests me. The cumulative effect of incorporating planting into front gardens, back yards, balconies, roofs, walls and driveways throughout towns and cities could be enormous, and yet 25% of front gardens in the UK have now been paved over to create parking. Clearly this is driven both by practical necessity and also by a lack of knowledge, skills or interest in gardening. But adding a bit of planting to our immediate environment would make great strides in protecting ourselves against the impact of climate change, air pollution and other risks while also enhancing the aesthetics of the places we spend much of our time.
From there to where?
So the aim is to use this blog as a repository for my musings on urban gardening with an environmentally sound slant, building on what I have learnt so far, and focussing where possible on how this can be used to develop my own little garden, depicted above. I’m lucky enough to have a south-facing garden which backs onto a disused railway line (now cycle path) which makes it feel bigger and more open than it really is. But like most keen gardeners I see much to improve in the planting and use of space and have lots of ideas for additional features which might be incorporated. With any luck it will provide plenty to write about here!